One of my favorite things in the world is rolling up to a stoplight with your windows down and realizing that the car next to you is tuned in to the same station. Sometimes you both notice, and look over at each other, and nod your head, and grin, and connect. It’s crazy how something so simple, so easy — it might not even be a song, maybe it’s that damn, heritage Sleep Train jingle — can bind you to a stranger. In that instant, you remember you’re a part of the whole.
I can’t keep up with the music I’m supposed to keep up with. I get Grizzly Bear and Wolf Parade mixed up. I only listened to Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith after they were long dead. And, of course, I’m just the four millionth person to fall in love with Berg’s Four Pieces.
iPods are great, obviously, and they’re ubiquitous, but they help divorce us from each other even more insidiously than we usually notice. Sure, everybody notices those telltale white wires dangling from your purse, under your hood; we know what you’re fiddling with in your pocket, glasses askew; it’s fun to watch half a dozen teenagers go by, all listening to their own music, all stepping with their own times. It’s funny and beautiful and absurd to watch us all immerse ourselves in art that begets such pleasure, that taps into something so visceral. It’s marvelous to be transported from your world, and a little unnerving to realize how quickly you lose your spidey senses.
However, our exponentially-increasing personal technologies and infrastructure not only enable us to pursue what we love, but also to fall away from each other. The internet is infinite (no matter what China thinks), and tens of thousands of webpages, of new places to explore, develop each second — even Google can’t keep track of them all. Meanwhile, while we humans do our best to procreate accordingly, our significant gestation period simply won’t let us keep up. So, basically, cyberspace grows at a rate so much faster than that at which we can take in information that none of us will ever explore any significant chunk of it.
On the one hand, this is a very cool phenomenon, in that somebody, somewhere, out there, is interested in Subject A, or Subject ∞, and is able to create something that facilitates that interest, and potentially builds a new community by allowing some esoteric idea to have an audience that never knew it wanted it in the first place. On the other hand, the more options we have and the more specialized we can be, generally the more we pursue our knowledge only if we find Subject A fascinating, and, as we all have different tastes, our Google searches, interests, spaces, paradigms diverge from each others’, and we continually fracture and fracture our communities into those that match up as closely as possible to what we think we want.
This parallels the surge in personal automobile use in the United States after World War II. In the beginning, our nation was primarily agrarian, but become much more urban with the Industrial Revolution and the turn of the 20th century. Of course, once the 20th century rolled around, the car was invented, and, about 20 years later, Ford’s assembly line innovation ushered in a new era of American efficiency, rendering cars much more affordable to many more people. After World War II was over and the American auto industry was allowed to return to its pre-war behavior, American scooped up the shiny new car in spades. Because they know had said cars, the middle- and upper- classes were able to move out of cities, and boom! our now-traditional suburb was born. Weirdly enough, our nation, at least economically, probably was way more integrated 50 years ago than it is today. Simply put, our transportation technologies allow the richer to travel quicker, and thus remove themselves from “unsavory” surroundings.
The car is just affordable enough that a huge proportion of Americans can buy it, but not quite affordable enough that the middle can always maintain it, and certainly not affordable enough that everyone can have it. Couple this with Americans’ love of privacy, space, and the mowed-lawn, freestanding house, and you have a world in which people often choose to live among those with whom they feel most comfortable, and potentially far away from everyone else.
Circling back, think of how many of your friends regularly proclaim, “I don’t listen to the radio.” Maybe we’ve come back to the point where the epitome of hipster will claim to love the radio (other than NPR, people — jesus), but all of us can at least remember that point in high school/yesterday when you insisted you don’t listen to the radio. It’s not cool.
Why isn’t it cool? Is it because you really hate all the songs on the radio? (Probably not quite true.) Is it because they play the same stuff over and over again? (I consider this a perfectly valid reason.) Is it because only those who aren’t in the know listen to the radio?
(Again with my habit of not conducting any empirical research, but hey, fuck it, this is a damn blog), I would argue that “I don’t listen to the radio” is often rooted in this aspirational ennui — a way to distinguish those of us who are in the know from those who are not. Just like Facebook users would insist they don’t use Myspace, but Myspace users would not think ill of Facebook users, saying you don’t listen to the radio is a way to mark that, not only are you cool and learned enough to not like that filthy swill, but that you have the means (whether free time, a great education, hip friends, and/or money to spare) to cultivate these tastes. Pretending that this doesn’t come into it is just plain insulting.
Now, all that said, what’s so wrong with that? Music is amazing. I, personally, think it may be the one good in the world that isn’t subject to the law of diminishing marginal returns. Anything that enables, encourages, inspires, facilitates more, better music, and gets it to more people, and helps more people come alive, is absolutely a Good.
That said, I do think that technologies tend to move more quickly than our community-facilitating institutions do. While Twitter, Facebook, and blah blah social networking have all sprung up to help connect people, the internet is about twenty years old, and we’re really just starting to hit any significant social connectors. While technology is great and inevitable, it’s important to recognize that 1. it’s not available to everybody and 2. because our love of it is so intertwined with our love of the new, it’s easy to forget that not everybody else is a member of the community, too.
Basically, by allowing us to get closer and closer to exactly what little niches we think we want, iPods allow us to ignore the channels that once brought us together. According to Mad Men, and probably a lot of our parents, a huge chunk of Americans gasped together when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot. My dad still remembered hearing War of the Worlds on the radio and running into the street to talk to his neighbors to find out what was real and what was fake. Going to concerts is still a great experience, not because Miller Lite gets spilled all over you and little girls kill your feet with their stilettos, but because you’re with 50, 200, 2000, 20,000 other people, and you know all the words to this song, and this is your favorite song, and right now, we are all together, we are singing this song, and it is our song, right now, and it is our lives, right now, and it is the world, and maybe we kind of like each other, just a little bit, after all.